Reflections from Ukrainian and Russian immigrants: Kira and Iryna

Southern California residents wrestle with events unfolding back home in the Russia-Ukraine war.

This story was originally published by KCET and is republished here by permission.

California is home to roughly 112,000 people of Ukrainian descent, and about 26,000 live in LA County. Russian-Ukrainian American photographer Stella Kalinina interviewed Ukrainians, Russians and others from former Soviet states living in Southern California about their personal experiences and reflections on the war. This is the fourth in a series of five stories.


Many people Stella spoke to for the series worried about family in Ukraine and Russia. Some struggled to make contact as relatives lost electricity; they waited for news from those in battle zones or from those who had fled. Others lost friends in arguments about the war. Three people who were originally set to be photographed withdrew, citing concerns over Russia's fifteen year prison sentence for those who criticize the state, and repercussions for family members. What follows are reflections from Ukrainians, Russians, and a Belarusian who now live in Southern California and grapple with the events unfolding back home.

Kira Portnaya, 35. Los Angeles, California.

Kira Portnaya
Age: 35

I was born in Samara, Russia. In 1996, when I was 10 years old, we moved to the Washington D.C. suburbs of Gaithersburg, Maryland. My grandmother, Khaya, was born in Kyiv. At the beginning of World War II, before the Nazis came to Ukraine, she escaped and went to Russia where she eventually settled and had a family. My mother is Jewish, and there’s still a lot of discrimination that she felt growing up, especially during the Soviet era. My grandmother’s sister moved to Maryland several years before us, and she sponsored our arrival.

I moved to LA a year ago, in the middle of COVID. I was offered a job in December of 2020 and decided to start the new year in a new place. I was looking for personal growth and a change of scenery.

I did get a chance to visit Kyiv twice in my life, once as a child and then again in my early 20s. Around 2011, I was working for a company in Maryland with a recruitment office in Kyiv and I got to go there for a week. It was absolutely gorgeous and vibrant and everybody was so friendly. I remember this one particular girl, her name was Lena. She was my administrative assistant, and she was just this beautiful spirit. She spent time hanging out with me and showing me around the city — taking me to cute cafes and fun clubs, you know, the key to city life in your early 20s. Then I got to meet her family. They lived in the converted dacha [country home] that had become their full-time residence. They had gardens and made “shashliki” (shish kebabs); they were super hospitable. It was a beautiful time.

I haven’t really been part of the local Russian or Russian-speaking communities, aside from a few friends here and there. My Russian cultural identity wasn’t the one I foregrounded. I prioritized a lot of my other identities: woman, creator, marketer, artist, you name it. But now, my Eastern European heritage is one I have to start connecting with more. I’m coming to terms with my birth land and the pain that it’s inflicting not just on Ukraine, but on the rest of the world. I can choose to ignore it and avoid it, or I can choose to face it and acknowledge it. And to choose the right side of history. As I am facing my Russian identity, I’m also acknowledging that I’m a citizen of the world. This is a global world and what we do affects people in other places.

I’m coming to terms with my birth land and the pain that it’s inflicting not just on Ukraine, but on the rest of the world.

I hope we open up our arms here in the U.S. and take these refugees. And, I also think we should be just as open to other refugees coming from other countries. Nobody uproots their life and comes to an unfamiliar place where they don’t speak the language for no reason. When I came here as a child, an immigrant, not speaking any English, we didn’t experience any major push back. My grandmother and my mother didn’t have any problems with the government. I mean, an immigrant experience is never easy. But by all accounts, compared to what you hear certain cultures going through right now, my family’s experience was easy. I hope that every refugee gets to have the same experience here.


Iryna Korotun, 34. Lomita, California.

Iryna Korotun
Age: 34

I was born in Lviv. My father is from the western part of Ukraine, and my mom is from Odessa region. My father speaks Ukrainian; my mom speaks Russian. In our family, we speak both languages, at the same moment. I speak both languages equally well. I lived in Odessa region until I was 17 and then I moved to Kyiv.

In Ukraine, my ex-husband and I both worked for the top TV channels. It was a tough time in Ukraine after Maidan, Crimea, and Donbas. We came to LA to try to work in the TV industry here. We made a documentary about wounded Ukrainian soldiers called Rehab. My husband and I later divorced. Now I am married to an amazing woman, which was really hard for my parents to accept. It took them almost a year.

My parents, my grandmas, my uncle, and my cousin are all in a little village in Odessa region right now. My little sister is in Kyiv. She doesn’t want to leave. She actually wants to fight and is making Molotov cocktails.

A lot of Russians think that we are like brothers. But the thing is, they don’t know that we have our own traditions. For example, my father is from a small city in the Zakarpattia region in the western part of Ukraine, which has a tremendous amount of its own traditions. If we are singing the same popular songs in Russian and we understand the language, that doesn’t mean we are the same as Russians. We have a part of us that is completely different.

If we are singing the same popular songs in Russian and we understand the language, that doesn’t mean we are the same as Russians.

I love Ukraine, and I love the U.S. I love them differently, but maybe with the same amount of volume. For me, Ukraine is like the roots of the tree. That’s where I’m from, who I am mostly. And the U.S. for me is like the canopy of the tree, who I am now. There cannot be a tree without a canopy or without the roots.

I love Kyiv, as well as Lviv. I miss the Carpathian Mountains, where my relatives and grandparents live; the mountains are a place of power for me. The Carpathian air is completely different from everywhere else in the world. It’s kind of like you can drink the air there.

I also love LA; I live here. I was grateful every day even before the war, but now I’m even more grateful. I live the most beautiful life and I feel it with every cell in my body these days.

Stella Kalinina is a Russian-Ukrainian American photographer based in Los Angeles working on contemplative stories about human connections, personal and communal histories, and the places we inhabit. She brings empathy, curiosity and a collaborative approach to portrait-based stories that are firmly rooted in a sense of place. 

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